A run through the news ecosystem

Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation, delivered the keynote address on April 24. 2014 at the “Innovating the Local News Ecosystem” conference presented by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Below is an edited version of his speech.

Congratulations to Montclair State’s School of Communication and Media, the Center for Cooperative Media and the New Jersey News Commons. This university is addressing this state’s crisis in local accountability journalism by creating new, dynamic networks. Montclair State’s work is an important part of the major investment in New Jersey media made by Dodge Foundation and its partner – that would be us –  the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

We are here to discuss local news ecosystems. You’ll see two common definitions of the word “ecosystem”:

  • “a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment”
  • “any system of interconnecting and interacting parts, as in a business”

Two definitions: one alive, organic and ever-evolving; the other, a bit more static and predictable.

The generosity of the Knight brothers (and their mother)_ endowed Knight Foundation with the wealth accumulated from the building of what once was the nation’s largest newspaper group.

I wasn’t there. But it’s a fair guess, given the times, that the brothers didn’t wile away the hours talking about news ecosystems.

Yet the way they ran the business fits the two definitions of ecosystem.

Jack ran the editorial side. He thrived in the organic ecosystem, in the way communities used news to pursue their true interests. His editors customized the papers. They were as different as the people and places they served.

Jim called himself the “nuts-and-bolts” man. He thrived in the ecosystem of the interacting parts of a business. He standardized the overall operations of the papers. Presses, trucks – the nuts and bolts – were mostly the same from one community to the next.

The lesson? Business efficiencies are essential and each community is different.

In the 21st century, I think local news organizations will do well if they can do four things:

  1. Customize content.
  2. Embrace technology.
  3. Engage community.
  4. Standardize business practices.

I once headlined these the four Cs: content, connectivity, community and cash.

In ecosystem terms, these are fundamental elements of growth, the light, air, soil and water that nurture living things.

Some of the local news startups exist today because of their success in these four categories. That’s the good news; you’re here. The death rate of any kind of information startup is lower than average, nonprofit news sites even more so. You’re tenacious as all get out.

The bad news is, you still have a long way to go. I’d like to see you make it. So I hope you take my pointed questions in that spirit. All of us are on the same side, chasing the great goal set by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities: Don’t save journalism; invent it.

First, customized content

Communities are like microclimates. Not everything grows everywhere.  From Amsterdam last winter I hauled back bags of tulip bulbs. They went to friends all over the country.

This year, the tulips came up in the Northwest, Midwest and Northeast. But not in our garden in Florida. Tulip bulbs need to feel an Amsterdam winter before they’ll pop up for spring. In the tropics they just weren’t feeling it. Tulips won’t work everywhere. Neither will a lot of local news formulas.

People are the organisms that complicate news ecosystems. We need to pay more attention to them.

People search for our news, or don’t. They understand, share and use it, or they create their own, or they don’t. They shape and are shaped by their communities in ways we do not fully understand.

In Florida, we’re surrounded by water. The ocean, the bay, the gulf, the Everglades. Living there I developed what our journalism and media innovation program vice president Michael Maness would call “topic love” for water. Fishing apps, weather apps, stories about boating, the beaches, cooking seafood, the chemicals in my tap water and the Everglades: I can’t get enough of them. Topic love.

Community character drives more than content. DavisWiki works in Davis, a standalone California college town where people love their bikes. Hard to transplant it. In Columbia, Missouri, an assertive newspaper and big journalism school have kept public information open and available, so the Daily Tribune can scrape up all that local data with the OpenBlock platform and sort it by neighborhood. But that won’t work in communities without open information.

On a larger scale, it’s hard to imagine ProPublica being able to so masterfully make national news partners were it located in Austin, Texas, instead of the media capital of New York. But Austin is a great place for a digital news outlet, the Texas Tribune, to focus only on Texas politics.

A strong library and volunteer culture sustain The Forum in and around Deerfield, New Hampshire. Being in Boston, where students want to come to preview colleges, means the New England Center for Investigative Reporting can bring in revenue with high school journalism workshops. In St. Louis, outsized contributions from leading citizens helped the St. Louis Beacon merge with St. Louis Public Radio.

What do you know, really, about your community? As much as political or commercial data miners?  We investigate the Big Data of others. But we don’t have enough Big Data of our own. We don’t have amazing databases of our users. We don’t know their “topic loves.”

With a grant from Knight, the Voice of San Diego and MinnPost are rebuilding their customer relationship management systems. Real-time customer data is the sunlight local news startups need to grow.

Next, embracing technology.

News organizations born of this decade are children of technology. But tech moves like lightning and strikes its own children.

Moore’s Law suggests that a digital lifetime is less than two years. A 10-year-old news organization, therefore, has lived through at least five digital generations. If it has not changed, it has missed many media changes: serious games, social and mobile media, data journalism and more. At 10, a Web startup can be legacy media. If it keeps standing still, it will die.

This week I asked the folks at the Investigative News Network if they knew the total traffic of their 90-plus members. They did. I’ll give you the numbers soon. The point I want to make here is that the social media reach is only a third of the Web reach. Is that an indicator that too many nonprofit new sites are becoming legacy Web operations? These days, many daily papers report a majority of their traffic coming from mobile media. Is that true for you?

To embrace technology, you need to be a technologist, hire them or work with them. Some of the most successful startups in the recent study Knight did, “Finding a Foothold,” were also the ones with technologists. I’m not saying everyone has to have them. Companies such as The Alternative Press are banking on the idea that they can be the technologists for solo journalists. They think they’re better than Patch because their news providers are of the community where they write – and they have a point.

But even solo operators can use better tools, things like Document Cloud, Overview, Quill, Timeline JS, Videolicious. Knight has endowed a digital tools training program with the American Press Institute and the Poynter Institute. Digital tools can save time, improve quality, turn one journalist into many. Have your tried them? They are free on NewsU.org.

How do you create new products? Knight Foundation Trustee Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab observes that the digital age favors practice over theory, that it is easier and cheaper now to just build something than it is to model and plan and debate that thing.

Maness thinks what we lack today are “transformational leaders,” people who can build new things fast and cheap and then test and rebuild them at least four times until they are good enough to succeed.

In the end, technology is as important to modern news ecosystems as air is to organic ecosystems. How’s the air in your shop? Getting stale?

Next, engaging community

Anxiety does a lot of things to people. For one thing, it can drive us to leap to conclusions. There’s still high anxiety floating around newsrooms. Every few minutes someone announces a new answer, a new model.

Hold on. The very idea of a model solution feels like a 20th century mass media notion. What if in the 21st century the local news model is that there is no single model? Is there such a thing as a model ecosystem?  Customization and continuous change aren’t models so much as they are principles.

The word model is often used in the same sentence as the word scale, as in “Please consider a grant to my project because it is a model that will scale…”

The other day a foundation executive told me, “I saw 5,000 ideas last year … and two were scalable.” That means 99.96 percent of the ideas he saw could not scale.

But they were perfectly good ideas for the communities where they were born.

Most so-called models are really experiments, such as the ones Knight Stanford Fellow Alexa Schirtzinger recently told me about: Berkeleyside and the Independent Media Network. Berkeleyside is a passionately local site focusing on everything Berkeley; the Independent Media Network in Connecticut is a type of advertising and tech network that helps news sites make money.

First, they need to succeed as experiments. Then, they might be nominees for models.

Of all of the digital age disruptions, the change from a passive audience to interactive community is the greatest. Anyone can participate in news, break it, help journalists cover it, quickly debunk it or act on it. Do we invite people into our systems, because we realize our systems aren’t just for journalists anymore?

Does the community help us figure out what to cover, help us cover it, help us get the word out, and act on the news?  Are we aggregating and curating news for our communities when we see the “topic love”?

At the University of Illinois, Knight Chair Brant Houston is using a Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education grant to create a new way to understand local social media conversations and see if that understanding changes the shape of local journalism.

This reminds me of what PolicyMic has done. Millenials doing serious news and opinion for millenials. In just a few years shooting past 10 million uniques. Disclosure: Knight is an investor. But you don’t have to be to know their secret: behavioral analytics. They mine social media for conversations millenials are having and promote their stories right into the middle of them. They share the “topic love.”

Five years ago, I would bet few if any journalists knew about human-centered design. Again I quote my colleague Michael Maness, who thinks this is a key way for news organizations, even nonprofit ones, to engage their communities.

The former vice president of innovation and design of the Gannett Company, Maness sees human-centered design as a critical part of product development. It is more anthropological than journalistic. User-centric design helps you understand the unexpressed needs of any group of people. The unexpressed needs, not the squeaky wheel.

Since the digital age has turned journalism inside out, should we not have inside-out ways of engaging our communities? They are the very earth in which we plant every story, the ground we all are rooted in.

Finally, standardized business practices

It was nice to see in the Knight Center report from USC that the Baltimore Fishbowl raised its revenue. I smiled when I saw how … they hired … a salesperson!

An old-school standard practice, I grant you, but it is still an improvement at so many editorial-centric sites. Other working ideas include sponsorships, memberships, cooperative ownership, micropayments, subscriptions, knowledge products, event revenue, the premium services, you name it.

One indicator of the health of a local news organization is diversity in revenue and expenses. So draw out two pie charts. If your revenue chart shows four or more sources, you are like many of the growing organizations; if your expense chart shows healthy slices of business and technology costs, and not just editorial, you are like the growing organizations. If you get all your money from foundations and you spend it only on stories, you are terminally ill.

The road indeed is long. A simple example: metrics. If a traditional television program or newspaper started 10 years ago, everyone would know its reach. The people who count that, the Alliance for Audited Media proudly celebrated their 100th birthday this year. We’ve been measuring traditional media metrics a long time.

Local startups are a different. The Investigative News Network’s Kevin Davis says, on average, for his 96 members, Web and mobile, the average monthly unique visitors in the final quarter of 2013 were just over 9.5 million. Twitter reach was about 1.6 million. Facebook reach about 1.5 million.

But that’s not the whole story. The number counts only INN members, not the scores of other startups. It does not count those viewing content shared or sold by the startups to mainstream news outlets.

Let’s look at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Its monthly website uniques averaged 15,000. But the circulation of the 83 newspapers using its stories was more than 750,000 and that readership stretched to every metropolitan area of the state.  Center stories also appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, which has 455,000 listeners a week and Wisconsin Public Television, reaching 1.3 million households a week.

So what’s the number? Remember, it is a standard business practice to explain reach.

Always moving ahead, ProPublica is using Pixel Ping, simple code that tracks page views of its stories when they were picked up by others. So Richard Tofel of ProPublica knows that the 16 million page views in 2013 of the organization’s investigative journalism were supplemented by another 7 million on other sites. But Pixel Ping doesn’t track the views on partner sites where ProPublica has co-published stories.

How many of the news organizations at this conference use Pixel Ping? Not many, I would bet. So… how many of you can explain your true reach to your community?

News startups are winning Pulitzer Prizes. That was Jack Knight’s world. But what about the digital nuts and bolts? Where is Jim Knight, a digital version of Jim Knight, when you really need him?

It’s important that people know the reach and engagement and impact of local startups, because it is there, it is real, it is happening. Great business practices ensure revenue streams, as essential to a startup’s growth as water is to a plant’s life.

All this said, I think the future of local news is bright. It’s exciting. We don’t know when that future will arrive, though. That’s the challenge.

We talk about the digital age being a giant paradigm shift, a Gutenberg moment. And it is. But it feels like we are now starting to have an Aldus Manutius moment.

Johannes Gutenberg started fooling around with movable metal type before Aldus Manutius was born. Gutenberg printed really big Bibles. It was Aldus who thought – he thought this in Renaissance Italian, obviously – “Hey, books should be small! They should fit in your pocket. We can print the Greek classics that way so a lot of people can read them. Type can slant; we will call it italic. And let’s have some standard punctuation.”

It sounds like Aldus was having fun. He gave people access to knowledge they otherwise simply would not have had. He innovated. He didn’t know it at the time, but his idea for “mobile” books would carry the day. More than 500 years later, we’re talking about him.

It’s too soon to know which of today’s contenders will be the Aldus Manutius of local news in the digital age. It’s quite possible that there won’t be one Aldus but a whole network of them, leading a Renaissance in community news.

Imagine, imagine, imagine how wonderful it would be if historians looked back to find some of those people in this room tonight.